In January 2002, some friends, a few awesome drag queens, and I took to Palo Alto and the streets of San Francisco to film Raised by Drag Queens. Yet another film shot for a pittance (I believe $5,000, if I’m remembering correctly), the cast and crew featured such names as Amy Kelly, Kennedy, Faye Lasheo, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, and Lisa Dewey, to name a few.
The movie grew out of an idea I had with the movie’s DP and editor, Allan Benamer, as we rode the NYC subway. It was pretty simple—what if three drag queens found a baby on their front step and raised her into womanhood? This is the result. Hope you like it.
And we’re back — with another movie! Okay, I really wanted this one to be done, as in fully edited with mixed sound, full-on color correction, and hell, can we get some closing credits?? It’s more than a couple years old, which in some spheres is excuse enough to lay it to rest (never mind Coffee and Cigarettes).
Still, I asked myself, “How do I get around the fact that…”
I can no longer access the original footage since it’s on a dead hard drive?
It would take me considerable time and resources to get this movie anywhere near where it should be?
I have no desire to either retrieve the wayward footage, since I’ve moved on to other projects, or to pretend this isn’t a super-low-budget, mega-DIY film?
What to do? How about we call it a rough cut! Or, here are some other options.
Call It a Dogme95 Film
I could indeed say it’s “Dogme95 influenced.” This would actually be true, insofar as we set out to do a film with available lighting, no external soundtrack, no director credit, etc. We totally broke the Vow of Chastity, though. So, let’s try something else.
Call It a Director’s Cut
My work of genius! My darling! My progeny! Okay that won’t work. Plus we’re yelling.
This might work. Here’s what I would tell someone who just happens to be using a
DVX-100B (mind you, a camera that’s no longer manufactured), miniDV tapes, and one’s own resources to shoot a zero-dollar short, specifically this film.
Find talented friends who love acting and are good improvisers. Empower them to come up with most of the story after you provide an outline and general direction.
Make liberal use of craigslist when you can. In this case, we scored free firewood. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to create a huge, blazing source of light. We had to:
Use another source, in this case, flashlights. This created a wonderfully odd mixture of a flickering, orange glow and a static blue light source that lit only half the actors’ faces. Flashlights worked pretty well for the “running on the beach” scenes, though.
If you film on the beach, get a lot of wild ocean sound. When you’re prepping the final cut you’ll want to make use of this to avoid weird sound jumps.
Back up your footage often — even if you’re just experimenting with a lo-fi film.
Here it is, then: a quirky little film that explores the genre “thriller” and answers the question: how well can you really know someone after four months?
Time for the next installment of the “all my movies on Vimeo” Cinemulatto posts. There was a hiatus due to a European vacation, but not to be diverted, we’re back.
Okay, this one’s a strange f*cking film. If you can tell me what’s going on, thank you. Perhaps you’ll win a prize. Or maybe even that’s an uncertainty.
The goal was to create a “sci-fi” film under 10 minutes. Heavily influenced by Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB and the experimental films of Les LeVeque, we clocked in at just around six minutes, had a great child actor, and took advantage of the trails, groves, and shaded paths at Junipero Serra County Park. We then drove down to the coast and finished before sundown. We had a blast.
“Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.” — William Blake
I hope that as I grow older, I figure certain things out — what’s most important, the unhealthy patterns I’ve repeated, the things that are trivial that can fall by the wayside (with any luck, those unhealthy patterns).
I hope it’s a time of great clarity and peace.
This is essentially what I wanted to explore in Winter’s Eve, the next short film I’ve made publicly available on Vimeo. The story centers on two women — one who’s “grown older” and her pool cleaner, the young mother of a toddler. It deals with several questions:
What constitutes a human connection?
Can we ever truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?
How does our perspective of death change as we get closer to it?
What does inner strength look and feel like?
What existential, unspoken moments of insight do we face when we realize so many things at once — the immediacy, vibrancy, and beauty of life; the inevitability of death; and the need and desire to persevere while we can?
I’d originally wanted all the films I created in 2014 to explore the theme of death. After doing two heavy films, I was ready for some comedy. However, Athanasia is one of the ones I did before shifting gears. So, it’s serious, but also infused with moments of playfulness and hope.
I’m afraid of death. I’ve been very acutely aware of the fact of my own mortality since a random moment of clarity in the spring of 1994. I was sitting at the front windows of the Cole Valley flat I shared with three friends, watching passersby on the street below, and I was hit with an intense moment of insight—someday, I’m going to die. To not exist. To no longer experience the reality and presence of loved ones. Ever since then, I occasionally have this same blast of hyper-awareness. It’s frightening and troublesome.
So, one character in Athanasia hates death. Conversely, her partner thinks fear of death is silly and takes a back seat to love of life. “It has to happen, right? So why worry about it?” Somewhere in between, there’s room for great and necessary tenderness.
We filmed in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Mateo. The film stars J Aguilar and Caro Morales, and Beth Welch Snellings performs the beautiful Bach musical score.
We’re about to celebrate 239 years of American independence from Great Britain. Fireworks are about to go off, parades will be marched, George Foreman grills are at the ready. Some current events make it seem like there’s not a whole lot to feel particularly free about. Still, you have to admit, other happenings give us a reason to make this the most boisterous July 4th ever.
In the spirit of the latter — gay marriage being recognized nationwide, Obamacare being here to stay, the Three Strikes foolishness finally striking out — I’m celebrating this year.
And, in the spirit of true freedom, I’m going to share an independent film for free. A truly independent film, devoid of late-night multi-million-dollar deals, or Lincoln Town Cars, or tanning salons.
In fact, I’m going to do this with all of my movies, working backward from 2015 to 2000, the year of my first film. I’ll return to the Cinemulatto bi-weekly rotation and present one movie every other week. Sure, the quality of the films may be a bit questionable the further we go back, but hell, there’s no such thing as a bad movie, right? Somewhere, somehow, there’s someone who loves a movie that someone else considers awful. Plus, there’s something to be said about shameless (and sometimes shameful) self-financing, stale Twizzlers, and crippling debt (which, thankfully, I’ve paid off and isn’t so crippling anymore).
So, let’s not judge, dammit. Be thankful it’s free.
I made my last feature, Mother Country, in the summer of 2010. My goals were to:
Travel across country to show the main character’s development from lower-class, impressionable young man to quasi-indie-hipster hanging out in Silverlake.
Create an African-American character who, although being stuck in several predicaments, essentially gets his way, i.e., avoid a “struggle” narrative.
Spend less than $100,000.
Make something worthwhile with good friends, and connect with new and old friends along the way.
We met all these goals and lived to tell a few great stories. It was an incredibly taxing journey. I knew I was setting us all up for a huge challenge. I also knew that if I could do this, subsequent film projects would be easy. Or, easier.
After the dust settled I assigned myself another challenge: get to the point of being able to write, direct, produce, shoot, and edit my own films, starting with a few micro-budgeted shorts. Microcinema is nothing new. Still, I aimed for zero dollars, nothing, zilch, or as close to this as possible. I dubbed them Zero Dollar Shorts. The rules:
Use available lighting
Use only equipment that was already owned
Work with family and friends, for both cast and crew
Either create scripts through improvisation or improvise the movie completely
Feed everyone by potluck
So, between 2010 and 2013 I shot six shorts under the above conditions. The camera: a DVX100B (with one exception), which is no longer manufactured. Here are some of the ways we got around spending money on each film. Some of them we used across films. Disclosure: I always spend money on post-production sound. I’m deaf in one ear, sound has never been my strong suit, and it’s one of the most important aspects of a film; I always hire a professional. Therefore, saving money and aiming for “zero” happens in development, pre-production, and production.
Untitled “family movie”: After growing tired of a mundane life with two mothers, a young girl runs away from home. This was the first in the bunch and the edit is currently in progress. Best things we did to save money: Used only non-permit locations and casted my daughter as the lead.
Happy 4 Months: How well can you know someone after four months? This was filmed at the beach using an illegal bonfire as a lighting source. Currently being edited. Best thing we did to save money: tapped craigslist for free firewood and used flashlights from our home emergency kit. Very different color temperatures, yes, but we made it work.
The Black Americans: Two young men hit Venice Beach looking for something to do with only five dollars. To be edited. Inspired by Jarmusch, Cassavetes, and Pull My Daisy, we set out to make a black indie Beat film. Best things we did to save money: filmed in locations until we got kicked out, did lots of scenes in a car, and unwittingly incorporated the homeless man who asked what we were doing with that unopened bottle of wine (which I think we got for three bucks).
Hookup: a mumblecore-inspired sex comedy. The sound mix on this is currently being completed. Best thing we did to save money: filmed in my home (which we also did for most of the family movie).
Solitude for Beginners: An unemployed businessman gets held up at gunpoint, but turns the situation to his favor. Edit in progress. Best things we did to save money: tipped the bartender 20 bucks to let us film at Jack’s Bar. Consider this a Twenty Dollar Short.
In Memoria: In the future, a woman escapes from a totalitarian state, but is followed into the woods by a strange woman bent on bringing her back. I cannot tell a lie: we spent some money on this one. My DVX100B finally gave out, so this was the first short filmed using the Canon 7D, which I purchased in November of 2012. We also spent money on props and costumes, which totaled about a hundred bucks. Things we did to save money: filmed in a remote part of a regional park (okay, so we spent 6 bucks on parking), had my daughter run sound (which she’d learned by then since she prefers it to acting), and bought one of the costumes in a thrift store.
What are some ways you’ve made films, done dirt-cheap?